A 15-year-old sore. An itch that needs to be scratched.
I ran for the U.S. Congress in 1998, winning the primary contest but losing to the incumbent in the general election. After the campaign, I received a dreaded letter from the Federal Election Commission notifying me that they were auditing my campaign for irregularities. Even though I had been fastidious in following all the rules and had a well-regarded CPA who also was a public official as my volunteer campaign treasurer, I was nervous because I had been advised by a close friend who ran two losing campaigns for Congress that the FEC was known to target conservatives even when no wrongdoing was present. Boy, was he right!
For the 25 years I had run my jewelry store to that point, I always had taken a very low salary on a consistent basis and sporadic bonuses when the company could afford it. Shortly after taking a bonus from my own corporation, I loaned my campaign $25,000. They interpreted this as using corporate funds for my campaign, a violation. That I had operated this way for 25 years easily was proven by showing them the records from my accountants. We may as well have been talking to the walls. Twice they sent out low-level operatives to check things out. I remember my volunteer treasurer, my campaign manager and me almost yelling at these two gentlemen to look at the evidence. It really felt like “Alice in Wonderland” with a guilty verdict first and trial later. They obviously were instructed to decide against me so blatantly that we could hardly believe what we were experiencing.
Ultimately, I hired counsel to advise me of my options. They were clear: Pay the extortion fine of $25,000 or go to trial, which likely would cost $100,000-plus in legal fees with no guaranteed outcome. I paid along with a few thousand to the professionals who advised me through the process. It was and is painful to know that you are 100 percent innocent and realize you have been had by your own government.
Now we find out the infamous (take the Fifth) Lois Lerner was in charge of the Enforcement Division of the FEC during this period. Who’da ever thunk? She was the main power behind the suing of the Christian Coalition in the largest FEC suit in history, costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and lost employee hours. And what likely is the most well-known individual persecution by the FEC, Al Salvi, who was running against Dick Durbin for U.S. Senate in 1996, said he was told by Lerner personally that she would drop the suit if he agreed to never run for office again. Salvi not only refused that “Godfather”-style offer but also spent the $100,000-plus to fight the FEC to a successful vindication for the loan he made to his campaign, something I could not afford to pursue.
As my friend had advised me in the beginning, the FEC has a history of targeting conservatives with the apparent primary purpose of discouraging them from running for office. And as is similar with the IRS, they essentially are a Gestapo-style organization, and once they decide you are their mark, your options are to pay up or pony up incredible resources to fight them in court. Few have the disposable income to take the latter course. Thus, this leads me to the dictionary definition of “extortion”: the crime of obtaining something of value by the abuse of one’s office or authority. Yep. That’s them.
Gary Hofmeister is the owner and operator of Hofmeister Personal Jewelers in downtown Steamboat. He is a director of The Steamboat Institute and a former Republican nominee for Congress in the 10th District of Indiana.